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What Makes an Expert Witness in a Personal Injury Case?

As you might have guessed, expert testimony is generally given more credibility and weight by the finder of fact a Massachusetts personal injury case, or any other case for that matter, whether the finder of fact be a judge or jury. This is not an absolute rule, but it just stands to reason that testimony from someone who has been trained and is experienced in a particular subject matter would carry more weight than testimony from a lay witness.

Partly due to the foregoing, attorneys, particularly newer attorneys, are sometimes quick to object to the admissibility of testimony based on the witness being qualified as an expert. The objection would go something like this.

"Your Honor, at this time I ask that this Court qualify the witness as an expert in the field of aeronautics."

The judge may then respond with, " Okay, counselor. Does the defense have any objection?"

"Yes, Your Honor. The defense objects. We do not believe plaintiff's counsel has properly established the witness as an expert in aeronautics."

The judge then might say, "Well, the witness testified as to four years of education, culminating in a bachelor of science and aeronautics. He then testified that he's received a Masters degree in aeronautics and has worked in the field of aeronautics research and development for a period of 10 years. He additionally testified that he, himself, has been an avid pilot, performing in stunt plane competitions for the past five years. I believe the witness has established that he has sufficient education, training, experience and familiarity with the subject matter and the Court hereby finds that he is been established as an expert witness in the topic of aeronautics."

Had the judge not found this witness to be an expert in aeronautics, he or she would have had to explain to the jury that the testimony of the witness would not, specifically, be considered expert testimony. Given the background, education, training and experience of this particular witness, it would be extremely unlikely that the person would not be qualified as an expert in the area of aeronautics. In fact, that would likely be reversible error. Let's take a few minutes to establish just what is the threshold for establishing someone as an expert.

First, whether a witness is qualified to give an opinion on a particular matter as an expert is a preliminary question for the judge. It is not a question for the jury--clearly, that would cause problems if the finder of fact, which generally is not legally trained, would have to determine if someone was an expert while listening to the testimony.

To decide whether a witness qualifies as an expert, the threshold question is whether the witness has sufficient education, training, experience and familiarity with the subject matter to give the testimony. An expert does not have to be the most knowledgeable person available to be established as an expert, nor must that expert have extensive experience with the exact subject matter in order to be qualified.

To be established as an expert, the witness really just needs to have enough knowledge to provide some value to the finder of fact, the jury. However, the witness's background and qualifications must be logically supportive of the specific testimony he or she is to give. A common error lawyers make when attempting to qualify their witnesses as experts is trying to make too far of a leap between the witness's background and qualifications and the testimony to which the witness will testify. For instance, it would generally be improper for a real estate agent to be qualified as an expert in the cost of home improvements. The real estate agent wouldn't necessarily have any training, experience, or education in construction and the related costs. Rather than have a real estate agent testify as to the cost of construction, you would want a general contractor who is trained and experienced in doing such construction projects and pricing them. What the real estate agent could testify to as an expert would be the resulting value improvement to the property. That is, the real estate agent would be an expert in determining how much the value of the house increased as a result of the improvement.

In a personal injury case, the experts usually consist of either medical experts such as physicians or employment experts, those who could testify as to the reduced earning ability of a party with an injury which may or may not be permanent in nature. Your medical expert could testify as to the limitations your injury would have in regards to employment related activities, but he or she would not be qualified to testify as to your reduced earning ability without additional, on-point education, training, and experience.

Expert testimony is so important in personal injury litigation that it may be critical for you to properly qualify your expert. Step one, of course, is choosing the most effective expert. And to take a step further, I would recommend that you do your due diligence to choose the most effective personal injury lawyer first.

The information on this website is for general information purposes only. Nothing on this site should be taken as legal advice for any individual case or situation. This information is not intended to create, and receipt or viewing does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship.

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